While they may have been non-entities last year, sophomore right-handed pitcher Billy Lescher and junior southpaw Gabe Kleiman have become indispensable members of Penn baseball’s pitching staff this season.
Pitchers Connor Cuff and Ronnie Glenn, who accounted for 17 starts and 91 innings between them last season, left a large void in Penn’s starting rotation after the two graduated. Lescher and Kleiman were two of four pitchers who competed for the opportunity over this fall, winter and early spring to fill those rotation spots behind juniors Mike Reitcheck and Jake Cousins.
“At no point did that become unfriendly competition,” Kleiman said. “We all wanted each other to be as good as possible and keep getting better. I think that’s helped both of us to become as successful as we’ve been this year so far.”
After beginning the spring in the bullpen, Lescher worked his way into the starting rotation by the time the team began to face its Ivy League opponents in early April. In four relief appearances and five starts, he has worked a 4-2 record to go along with a 3.97 earned run average. Lescher’s success has come after he only pitched 1.2 innings during the entire 2015 season.
Lescher’s strong showing has come after the pitcher improved his mechanics and his strength in the weightroom. Lescher honed his skills over the summer, pitching for his hometown Alexandria Aces in the Cal Ripken League before returning to Penn in the fall.
Subsequently, Lescher has seen an increase his fastball velocity from 85-89 miles per hour last season to 91-93 MPH this season. Counting himself among the hardest throwers in the Ivy League, Lescher has averaged nearly a strikeout per inning and has held his opponents to a team-best .224 batting average, good for seventh in the Ivy League.
The Alexandria, Va., native has also added a slider to his repertoire behind his fastball and his changeup.
“It works pretty well — when it actually slides,” Lescher said with a laugh.
Kleiman began the year as the team’s No. 3 starter when the Quakers made their trip to Florida over spring break, and he has not disappointed. In six innings, the New York native gave up only two runs against a powerful North Florida team in Penn’s third game of the year, helping the team achieve its first victory of the season.
Since then, Kleiman has reeled off six more starts while pitching to a 2.25 ERA, the best on the Red and Blue’s staff and tied with Brown junior right handed pitcher Christian Taugner for the best in the Ivy League.
The junior southpaw’s ascent is remarkable, given that he posted a mediocre 5.06 ERA at Division III Bard College as a freshman before transferring to Penn last year. Kleiman was not guaranteed a spot on the roster after arriving at Penn, but made the team after a few practices. He was forced to sit out the entire season due to NCAA transfer rules.
Although Kleiman missed live game action, he took the time off as an opportunity to get better.
“I think I had a big opportunity to improve a lot over the last year and a half because I wasn’t able to play,” Kleiman said. “I spent the better part of that spring and the entire summer trying to get my body in the best shape possible.
“It could be tough, knowing that I couldn’t play, to keep going through the motions every single day, but I just had to stay patient and keep trusting our coaches, trusting the weightlifting staff and powering through it for the past year and a half.”
Kleiman also credits added muscle in addition to an expanded repertoire of pitches as the main reasons behind his emergence. Although the junior transfer’s fastball usually sits below 90 miles per hour, he supports it with three off-speed pitches that he can throw for strikes in any count.
“This year [I can] throw a curveball in fastball counts, throw it for strikes when hitters aren’t ready for it just to get that extra advantage to get ahead of hitters,” Kleiman said. “It really helps.”
Kleiman’s deception and ability to locate his pitches has allowed him to move through lineups quickly without running his pitch count too high. As a result, he’s pitched a team-high 40 innings this year, averaging just shy of six innings per start. Kleiman’s durability has helped take pressure off the bullpen in collegiate seven-inning games.
Despite the increased efficiency on the mound that both have pursued, the added workload has inevitably increased the strain on their arms.
“The last couple games that I’ve started, I’ve gone over a hundred pitches, and I don’t think I’ve done that since I was back in my high school days,” Lescher said. “But it’s something you get adjusted to.
“There’s definitely a lot more arm fatigue this year than last year, but we have a great training staff, and they’re very on top of making sure that we’re healthy.”
Both Lescher and Kleiman have pitched key games for the Quakers this season. Just a week after being named Big 5 Pitcher of the Week, Lescher pitched a complete game against Yale on April 3, striking out 10 batters on his way to a 3-2 victory to help Penn achieve a doubleheader sweep of the Bulldogs. Kleiman turned in a sparkling six shutout innings against Dartmouth, helping the Quakers escape Hanover with a series split on April 9.
Yet, not all of the season has been as smooth. Lescher allowed seven runs in a loss to a powerful Princeton team on April 16, while Kleiman followed that afternoon by giving up three runs in a narrow loss to the Tigers.
Neither first-year member of the rotation has let that hiccup get them down, however.
“Obviously, I think it’s incredibly disappointing whenever you go out there and don’t give your team the best chance to win,” Kleiman said. “I’m going to work on the things I think I was lacking last week against Princeton, and I’m just going to trust that what’s made me successful in the past will continue to do so in the future.”
“They say baseball players have to have short memories to be good because it’s such a long season and there are so many games,” Lescher added. “You just have to come back, get a good week of work in, go out the next weekend and dice ‘em up.”
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